How to support healthy work-life balance
Especially in times of extra pressure, it’s important to emphasise a healthy work-life balance. It might seem counterintuitive — in a competitive market, pressing employees to put in longer hours and hit higher targets might seem like the only way to win. But this tactic is likely to backfire. The research is clear — it’s a surefire way to burn out your people.
Supporting work-life balance is good for your people and your company. When workplaces treat work-life balance as a normal expectation rather than a luxury, it has hugely positive effects, including improved productivity and reduced stress.
And after all, there’s no evidence that longer working hours improve output or productivity. In fact, the opposite is true.
And it’s not just about our satisfaction at work. Supporting work-life balance is also a long-term strategy to invest in diversity.
Did you know? A 30-year study involving over 800 companies found that organisations with strong work-life policies had a higher proportion of women and ethnic minority managers.
In their book Getting to Diversity, Dobbin & Kalev note that underrepresented groups are more likely to experience pressures on their work-life balance, for example with caring responsibilities or longer commute times. Policies that support work-life balance improve retention and diversity.
As April marks Stress Awareness Month, we’re talking about why it’s crucial to support a healthy work-life balance. Here’s how to embed it into your workplace culture.
1) Write an excellent time off policy
Holidays do wonders for our stress levels, mindfulness, brain power, even our sleep. For each vacation taken, our risk of health issues related to heart disease goes down by a quarter.
Time off also boosts our brain power. People aren’t 100% productive 100% of the time, our brains just don’t work that way. We need to unplug in order to internalise information, see things from a distance, and make new connections. That’s why babies need to sleep 18 hours every day. With ample rest, their brains can catch up and internalise all the new information they take in.
Have you ever finally figured out the crossword clue while idly washing the dishes? Or drafted an email in your head while grabbing some groceries? Sometimes, a break from the desk is exactly what we need to have that lightbulb moment.
75% of HR professionals report that employees who take most of their vacation perform better than those who take less.
Without clear expectations though, people might feel an unspoken sense of pressure not to take time off. That’s exactly why we ditched unlimited holidays at Fair HQ in favour of a clearly defined policy with 36 paid days of leave (including bank holidays). Before, expectations were just too blurry. With clear and transparent norms, everyone feels comfortable taking time off.
In your time-off policy, we also recommend including:
- Definitions of the types of leave people can take. e.g. annual leave, family leave and personal days (where employees don’t have to disclose the reason for taking time off).
- Clear guidance on the process for booking time off, including approval considerations.
- Why time off is so beneficial, so employees know they’re encouraged to use it.
2) Offer family support programmes
Working parents or those supporting dependents may find it more difficult to balance their careers with their caring duties. Employers can ease this pressure with generous family policies.
For example, the Fair HQ leave policy offers 4 days of family time off per year (on top of annual leave) so that people can take care of dependents.
Family support programmes aren’t only beneficial for work-life balance, they should be central to your DEI strategy. When Google expanded its paid parental leave policy in 2007, the retention rate of women after maternity leave jumped by 50%.
Even with family policies in place, people might feel reluctant to make use of them due to social stigma. We’ve written a full guide on how to shift norms around parental leave so that no parents have to choose between work or family.
3) Support flexible work
One shift that’s sure to stick with us long past the pandemic is flexible work. With a host of tech tools exploding in popularity, it’s easier than ever before to collaborate asynchronously with globally distributed teams.
Did you know? A recent Built-In survey revealed that flexible work was the most attractive benefit that would convince employees to stay at their job.
Flexibility is also good news for diversity. Organisations that adopt flexible work policies saw an increase in management jobs held by ethnic minorities ranging from 3 to 11%.
Post-pandemic though, many workplaces returned to in-person setups. Hybrid work can bring some complications. When employees have to be present in the office for a certain number of hours or days, it can harm people’s sense of flexibility.
If you’ve shifted back to in-person working, here’s how you can still support employees’ needs for flexibility:
- Create a transparent document clearly defining what flexible work means for your company, including your core office hours, work-from-home guidance and how many days (if any) people need to work in the office.
- Allow everyone to work flexibly by default. If people need more flexibility beyond your current policy, outline a simple procedure on how they can apply.
- Help your hybrid team feel connected with regular activities to build connection.
- Bake flexibility into your team routines. Instead of focusing on where people work, maximise how you can work together effectively. Plan in advance when it’s necessary to be in the same space (say for quarterly planning or a project kick-off) and support flexibility when work can be done asynchronously.
4) Encourage healthy working habits
In high-pressure jobs, some leaders equate face time with dedication. They see working late or answering emails on the weekend as proof that employees are ready for prestigious assignments and promotions.
But if these behaviours are rewarded, you’re embedding bad habits into your culture. People will avoid taking time off because they’ll worry their commitment will be questioned or that they’ll miss out on opportunities.
It’s not that working late is necessarily a worrying sign. Some employees, particularly neurodivergent people, have bursts of energy outside of standard eight-hour blocks. Nine to five aren’t productive hours for all of us — your teammates might be night owls or early risers who work way more effectively outside of typical office hours.
Signs of overworking
Instead of questioning people who don’t work nine to five, here are some signs that overworking has become normalised in your company:
- emails are often sent on the weekend
- people check Slack while on holiday
- employees come to work when they’re feeling ill
- people rarely talk openly about mental health and stress
Overworking isn’t sustainable. And it’s not good for your business — there is no evidence that working extended hours increases productivity.
If these symptoms aren’t addressed, the work-life balance scales will tip dangerously in the direction of work, and people can easily become burnt out. And that’s something to worry about — 95% of HR leaders agree that employee burnout sabotages workforce retention. Burnt-out employees are 2.6x as likely to be actively seeking a different job.
How to avoid burnout
Here’s how to avoid burnout and encourage employees to take care of their well-being:
- Set a clear expectation — no Slack, emails or work calls when someone’s on leave. Encourage people to update their calendars and status so their colleagues know when they’re not available.
- Plan far in advance when people are taking time off so they can redistribute their workload. This will prevent the rest of the team from being swamped while covering, and avoid the post-holiday fear of coming back to a pile of work to catch up on.
- Encourage employees to set their working hours in their calendars. If people prefer working outside of traditional hours, that’s totally fine, flexibility is healthy after all!
- Set the norm to schedule late-night messages or emails for the next morning. If you have teams working in different time zones, make sure people’s working hours are visible so that they know when to expect a reply.
- Check how much time people are taking off each quarter. If there are big discrepancies, encourage employees to book some time off in the next few weeks.
- Make work-life balance a regular talking point in 1-on-1s. If employees say they don’t feel able to take time off due to their workload, redistribute and reprioritise their tasks.
5) Model from the top
Working productively looks different for everyone, so managers need to show their support for flexible working hours and taking time off. But even with all of these practices and policies in place, people might still feel reluctant to make use of them for fear of losing status in their manager’s eyes.
This can be even worse if managers themselves aren’t modelling healthy behaviours. Research shows that culture makes all the difference.
The key to embedding work-life balance in your company culture is to send a signal from senior leaders. Prompt your leaders to champion your work-life policies and talk openly about the importance of taking time off for your well-being.
It hasn’t been an easy start to the year for tech, or for anyone else for that matter. With a general sense of uncertainty in the air, I’m sure none of us is a stranger to stress.
That’s all the more reason to emphasise a healthy work-life balance. For Stress Awareness Month, let’s embed healthy habits to take care of ourselves and others so that stress doesn’t get the better of us.
Backing it up
Castrillon, C. (2021). Why Taking Vacation Time Could Save Your Life. Forbes.
Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2022). Work-life Help For Everyone. In Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. Getting to diversity: What works and what doesn’t. (pp.130-153) Harvard University Press.
Jabr, F. (2013). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientific American.
Montanez, R. (2019). Burnout Is Sabotaging Employee Retention: Three Things You Must Know To Help. Forbes
Moss, J. (2019). Burnout is about your workplace, not your people. Harvard Business Review
Piasna, A., & De Spiegelaere, S. (2021). Working time reduction, work-life balance and gender equality. Dynamiques regionales, 10 (1), 19-42.
Rothbard, N. P., Beetz, A. M., & Harari, D. (2021). Balancing the scales: A configurational approach to work-life balance. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 8, 73-103.
SHRM & US Travel Association (2013). Vacation’s Impact on the Workplace. SHRM
Wigert, B. (2021). How to Eliminate Burnout and Retain Top Talent. Gallup.